In 2018, a novel by a young Nigerian-American author, Tomi Adeyemi, took the young adult fantasy world by storm when it released to great commercial and critical success. Children of Blood and Bone landed Adeyemi a movie deal before it was even released. There are few young adult books in the last few years that had as much hype or generated as much discussion, and it’s no wonder—the novel, inspired by West African mythology, deals with topics that almost never get represented in the genre, such as state-sanctioned brutality against Black people, and features a (practically) all-black cast. It also tackles gender dynamics in startling and refreshing ways that reflect and reimagine the dynamics in our world, and that’s what I want to discuss today.
Children of Blood and Bone tells the story of Zélie, a girl who remembers when magic was destroyed in her kingdom of Orisha and her mother, a maji, was murdered by the tyrannical King Saran. Zélie would have been a maji herself if magic hadn’t been eradicated from the land. But when she receives a gift from the Sky Mother in the form of a scroll that restores her magic, she, her brother Tzain, and Amari, the daughter of the king who killed Zélie’s mother, must work together to bring magic back into the land and give the former maji a fighting chance against the oppressive rule of the king.
Throughout the novel, there is a stark divide between divîners (people who can become maji if magic is restored) and non-magical people. Divîners are discriminated against for their silver-white hair that indicates their magical heritage and are not allowed to marry non-magical people. King Saran and his followers fear and despise magic and use force and violence to rule over the kingdom of Orisha. The hierarchy has obvious overtones of racism and colorism (nobles are also more light-skinned than working-class Orishans), but the divide is also rooted in gender differences. All magic comes from the Sky Mother, who divided magic among the twelve gods, whereas the power of the state comes from the king. Zélie is supported, loved, and nurtured by the female figures in her life (and by her brother, Tzain), while Inan, the prince tasked with killing her, is driven by his toxic relationship with his emotionally distant and abusive father. Magic, compassion, and balance are coded traditionally female while war, violence, and oppression are coded traditionally male.
Women Make Magic
Despite being ruled by the tyrannical King Saran, the soul of the kingdom of Orisha—the magic that used to suffuse it, until it was destroyed by the king—is female. In Adeyemi's version of the Orisha pantheon, the Sky Mother is the supreme deity from whom all life and all magic comes. Zélie's mother symbolizes the past for her, since she was the maji whom Zélie remembers best, and the one who Zélie thinks of when she imagines restoring magic to her kingdom. In fact, the story can be seen as one of reclaiming female power: Zélie wants to restore the Sky Mother's power and the past she remembers, in which her mother's power was stronger than the king's forces.
In our world, women, and particularly Black women, are often expected to be nurturing and mothering to the men in their lives. However, the nurturing and mothering that occurs in Children of Blood and Bone is directed almost entirely at other women. Mama Agba teaches young girls in Zélie's village how to fight to defend themselves against the king's soldiers. In Zélie's memory, her mother is a source of comfort and stability, a reminder of the magic that used to exist in Orisha. The Sky Mother brings magic back to Zélie through Amari. Oya, the deity of Zélie's maji clan and the goddess of life and death, guides Zélie multiple times and lends her strength. And Amari is the one to comfort Zélie after she's tortured by the king. In this novel, the ties of intergenerational female empowerment are stronger than any others.
In my recent post about young adult Cinderella retellings, I talked about how the basic structure of the canonical fairy tale is rooted in severing the ties between women, and how the retellings perpetuate that by making all the older women evil or absent. Children of Blood and Bone follows the opposite trajectory. The ties between women are all severed (between Zélie and her mother, through her mother's death; between Zélie and the Sky Mother and Zélie and Oya, through the destruction of magic; and between Amari and Binta, through Binta's death) by men—specifically, the king (the patriarchy)—but the women work throughout the novel to reforge those links. Zélie's mother and Binta are of course dead and can't return, but Zélie is able to use the memory of her mother as a source of inspiration and strength, while Amari gains a new, strong female friendship as she and Zélie become closer and the memory of Binta gives her the motivation to keep fighting.
Just as women are expected to nurture men who don't always reciprocate, men are rarely seen supporting women who mess up repeatedly. This dynamic is especially notable in the Black community (link), where women are doubly burdened by gender and race. However, in Children of Blood and Bone, Tzain is shown repeatedly having Zélie's back despite her screw-ups. Zélie is impulsive and sometimes self-centered, though fundamentally good at heart, and Tzain understands that. He does get fed up with her when she goes too far by making out with the enemy (it would be a little unbelievable if he was an endlessly patient saint) but he ends up forgiving her. Tzain is the kind of supportive, nurturing man that is often absent from portrayals of Black men.
Men Wage War
By contrast, King Saran is the pinnacle of toxic masculinity. He deals with his grief over the death of his first family by massacring an entire people, he lets fear and insecurity rule him, and he passes his anger and his hatred onto his children. He despises weakness in his children, especially his son, Inan: “He can probably smell the weakness leaking through the sweat on my skin,” Inan narrates near the end of the novel. King Saran is the one who drives wedges between the women around him, preventing them from being strong enough to stand up to him, and between his son and Zélie, who appeals to Inan’s compassion and almost converts him to her side. King Saran relates to others through manipulation, torture (mental and physical), and isolation. His Orisha is one without magic, without gods, that defies natural balance and imposes the will of men.
Inan is a product of his upbringing, though when magic begins to awaken in him and he and Zélie are forced to work together, he questions what his father has told him about the best way to govern the country. Love, empathy, and connection are what (almost) succeed in bringing him around, but fear convinces him to turn on Zélie. King Saran claims that his first wife was “too softhearted for her own good” and wanted him to make peace with the maji, but that softheartedness got her killed. Inan sees the destructive power of magic and decides to accept his father’s side of the story, choosing domination and oppression over love and compassion.
In our world, men are generally more violent than women; they commit about 88% of all homicides and 75% of all felonies. Psychologists, anthropologists, and others have attempted to explain this gender difference in the tendency toward violent crime, with some claiming that evolution plays a large role. After all, men are the hunters, right? Others believe that the explanation is more closely linked to history, with the advent of agricultural technologies allowing men to assert dominance over women and their possession of power causing them to use violence to preserve that power. Either way, violence is gendered, and so is compassion, its opposite.
Children of Blood and Bone doesn’t suggest that only men are violent—Zélie, Amari, and most of the other women in the book are fierce fighters when called to defend themselves and their loved ones—but that’s the point: they fight to defend their people, not to gain dominance over others, like King Saran does. The book doesn’t suggest that all men are naturally power-hungry oppressors or that all women are compassionate nurturers, either—Tzain is an example of male compassion, while Kaea is a female example of wanton violence and dispassion. But the book does suggest that a male-dominated society in which the power of women, here exemplified by the magic that comes from the Sky Mother, has been subjugated and overthrown, will be violent and oppressive.
Have you read Children of Blood and Bone? What was your favorite or least favorite thing about it? Do you agree with my read or do you think I'm completely off-base? Talk to me in the comments!
PS: My novel, Blue Rabbit, is coming out in paperback this Friday! The ebook will be FREE today and tomorrow and it will be at a discounted price Wednesday through Friday. Pick up your copy here and be on the lookout for a signed paperback giveaway that I will announce on my newsletter and social media!